2010 - %3, January

Most Pesticide Laden Produce of 2010

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:56 PM EDT

A few months back, we reported on the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies. Today, Mother Nature Network reports that the Environmental Working Group is about to publish the 2010 version of the list. This year, celery beats out peaches for the number one spot in the "dirty dozen" list. New additions are spinach, potatoes, and blueberries, replacing last year's lettuce, pears, and carrots. In the "Clean 15" list, grapefruit and honeydew melon replace tomato and papaya.

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Rushing Through Reform

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Right now, credit derivatives are the personal fiefdom of five big banks. Blanche Lincoln wants to make those five banks spin off their derivatives operations, but the Fed's technical staff is opposed:

Fed staff members wrote that the provision, advanced by Senate Democrats, "would impair financial stability and strong prudential regulation of derivatives; would have serious consequences for the competitiveness of U.S. financial institutions; and would be highly disruptive and costly, both for banks and their customers."

Democrats rejected the Fed's push and decided to include the controversial provision, originally drafted by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.). It would force any financial company that has insured deposits or can borrow from the central bank to spin off its derivatives operations. Ms. Lincoln has said this would protect taxpayers from having to offer public support for speculative trading operations. The Agriculture Committee passed the derivatives bill last week.

I'm not altogether sure where I stand on this. But I will make one comment: Republicans have a habit of complaining that Democrats are "rushing" their legislative agenda, and most of the time the charge is simply ludicrous. Whether it's heathcare or climate change or financial reform, they're usually talking about things that have been publicly discussed for years and actively part of the legislative process for many months at a minimum. It's a useful rhetorical tool for gullible reporters, but nothing more.

But in this case, there's something to it. Lincoln's proposal, as near as I can tell, came out of nowhere a couple of weeks ago. There's a general argument in its favor — namely that it would push risky derivatives away from federally insured banks and reduce the size of those banks at the same time — but not much in the way of serious discussion of the upsides and downsides. That hasn't changed much in the past couple of weeks, either. I've seen virtually no detailed discussion of what this proposal would entail.

I'm sympathetic to the idea on the simplistic grounds that it would (a) reduce the size and profitability of big banks, and (b) probably reduce the size of the derivatives market. I also find the Fed staff's arguments weak. It's the kind of boilerplate that we're fed about practically every proposal to rein in the financial sector. Still, it's hard to believe that we should enact a measure this sweeping with virtually no time for serious discussion. This one really needs a little more time for consideration.

Dems, GOP Want DOJ Probe of Goldman

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

A letter drafted by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) calling for a criminal investigation of Goldman Sachs has garnered more than 140,000 petition signatures as well as the support of 61 members of the House, including Republican congressman Michael Burgess of Texas. Kaptur's letter, addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, draws on the allegations cited in the Securities and Exchange Commission's securities fraud suit against Goldman, and says the DOJ should go one step further by pursuing criminal charges against Goldman. "If the DOJ is not currently looking into this particular case, we respectfully ask you to ensure that the US Department of Justice immediately open a case on this matter and investigate," Kaptur's letter says.

Kaptur and members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the organization that drummed up the petition signatures and also made some 4,000 calls to Congress about a Goldman criminal suit, will meet outside the DOJ today at 2 pm to turn up the heat on Holder. The pressure from Kaptur and PCCC comes at a incredibly tough juncture for Goldman. In addition to the SEC's civil suit, Goldman's top executives, including CEO Lloyd Blankfein, face a shareholder suit in New York surrounding the firm's controversial collateralized debt obligations deal (the same at the center of the SEC suit). The firm is also the defendant in a class-action suit over mortgage securities. Blankfein has said he and the firm will fight the SEC's suit.

Pete Peterson's Anti-Entitlement Juggernaut Gets Fueled Up by Obama

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

When Obama’s new Deficit Commission gets going, it has plans for "partnering“--in the words of executive director Bruce Reed--with outside groups. Among them will be the foundation run by Wall Street billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who on today is upstaging the president with his own fiscal summit in Washington. Obama insists he is keeping an open mind about how to deal with the deficit and national debt--but he’s already stacked his own commission with people who lean heavily toward one particular solution: cutting entitlements for the old, the sick, the disabled, and the poor. And if that wasn't enough, he now looks to be working hand-in-glove with a wealthy private organization whose central purpose is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Talk about foregone conclusions. 

The White House set the stage two months ago when it created the euphemistically named National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform--commonly called the Deficit Commission or the Debt Panel. The commission's anti-entitlement bent was clear from the get-go based on Obama’s choice of Alan Simpson to co-chair the commission. The former Republican senator from Wyoming has already described his mission as “saving” the United States from “insolvency” by hacking away at entitlements. His longstanding dedication to cutting entitlements dates back several decades, according to Saul Friedman, and "as recently as 2005, Simpson, a conservative from Wyoming who left the Senate in 1997, supported attempts by President George Bush to privatize Social Security by turning part of the pension and insurance program into millions of individual investment accounts, which by now would have lost 20 percent of their value." And even now, "Simpson, who should know better, conflates or deliberately confuses Social Security’s long term fiscal problems, which are minor, with its supposed contribution to the federal deficit, which is almost nil."

Known for his colorful language, Simpson recently attracted attention by saying old people ought to but out of the entitlement debate altogether, since any cuts would only apply to younger people: "You’ve got scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever." And in an interview with PBS's NewsHour after his appointment, Simpson clearly showed his hand on Social Security: “You have two [sic] choices…you either raise the payroll tax or decrease the benefits or start affluence testing. The rest of it is B.S. And if the people are really ingesting B.S. all day long, their grandchildren will be picking grit with the chickens. This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.”

But Simpson's power as chair of the presidential Deficit Commission pales in comparison to that of billionaire anti-entitlement crusader Pete Peterson. According to Forbes, Peterson was the 149th richest man in America last year, with $2.8 billion in assets. During his long career he has been, among other things, CEO of Bell & Howell,  head of Lehman Brothers, a co-founder of the Blackstone Group, and head of the Council on  Foreign Relations. He was Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, and in 1994 served on a Clinton bipartisan commission on entitlements and tax reform. He launched his own Peter G. Peterson Foundation with a grant of $1 billion.  

A fiscal conservative, Peterson has long been issuing dire warnings about the the nation’s skyrocketing debt. The key cause of the problem, in his analysis, is that entitlement programs--primarily Social Security and Medicare, but Medicaid as well--are out of control; the only solution is to cut them. Peterson's longstanding attack on Social Security has been most extensively documented by William Greider in The Nation. At this point, Peterson has emerged as the self-appointed head of what some people have begun to call the “granny bashers,” who argue that greedy geezers are ruining the lives of younger generations with their unconscionable demands for basic healthcare and a hedge against destitution. (Peterson himself is in his eighties--but of course he’s too rich to worry about such things.)  

The granny bashers’ real agenda, of course, is to cut the social safety net programs that they have long abhorred--but they have gained far more ground with their intergenerational inequity claims than they ever would with a straight-out attack on Social Security and Medicare. The majority of the Washington punditry seem to have fallen for it--and so too, apparently, has the White House.

Chevron Goes Drilling for Footage

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:18 PM EDT

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Chevron wants to rummage through filmmaker Joe Berlinger's cutting room floor. The company has been embroiled in a massive lawsuit in Ecuador, where it's being sued for $27 billion to clean up a swath of rainforest that's been polluted by decades of oil drilling. Last year, Berlinger released Crude, an excellent documentary about this lengthy, complex legal battle. Though the film was sympathetic to the indigenous Ecuadorians who are the plaintiffs, it also gave Chevron plenty of screen time to explain why it believes it's not responsible for pollution that caused by the wells' previous owner, Texaco. When I interviewed Berlinger last year, he explained why he took this approach:

My attitude is, I am not a lawyer; I am not a doctor; I am not a scientist. I am a filmmaker and I want to present what each side is saying and let the viewer come to their own conclusion. Chevron has wrapped itself in some pretty good arguments that make you scratch your head. The moral responsibility is certainly at its door. I leave it to other people to figure out whether there's legal responsibility.

Now Chevron is saying that outtakes from Crude could help its case. It does not seem to be implying that Berlinger hid anything, but rather that his unedited footage could reveal misconduct by the plaintiffs' attorneys. Berlinger tells the Chron that he'll resist Chevron's move, saying that turning over his footage would create a chilling effect for other documentarians: "I would be equally resistant if the plaintiffs had been subpoenaing me. There's an important First Amendment principle to defend." Berlinger is expected to make his case against Chevron's director's cut in federal court in Manhattan later this week.

 

Finance Reform Battle Delayed...Again

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 1:02 PM EDT

The financial reform battle—that is, to even start the full debate in the Senate—continues on here on Capitol Hill. For the third time in as many days, Senate GOPers defeated a vote to start debating financial reform legislation, a bill that would try to end future taxpayer bailouts, create a new consumer protection agency to guard against predatory lenders and dangerous products, and shed light on the opaque, $450 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market. The vote was 56-42, with centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) again voting with Republicans. Majority Leader Harry Reid ultimately voted against the bill, too, a maneuver that allows him to schedule another vote which could happen as early as Thursday morning.

The losing vote wasn't entirely surprising, as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a top Democratic negotiator on financial reform, said earlier Wednesday morning that his party still didn't have the votes to begin the debate. Remarks on Wednesday by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) suggest the gulf between the two parties remains gaping and it could take several more days before an agreement is finally reached. "Are we close to wrapping up a comprehensive deal? No, we're not close to that," Shelby told MSNBC.

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Cape Wind Finally Gets Green Light

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

In what environmental activists are calling a "huge victory for clean energy," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on Wednesday the approval of the Cape Wind project. The announcement ends nearly a decade of debate over whether to build the 24-square-mile project in the Nantucket Sound, and launches the nation's first offshore wind farm.

"This will be the first of many projects up and down the Atlantic coast," said Salazar, adding that it will help the country "build a new energy future."

He acknowledged that the decision "has not been a easy one," citing the concerns of local Native American tribes that the proposed wind farm would disrupt their ritual of greeting the sunrise and impose on ancestral burial grounds. In order to address some of those concerns, the number of turbines planned for the sound will be reduced from the original proposal of 170 to 130, and more archaeological surveys of the area will be done to "minimize impacts," Salazar said.

"There is no question that the review of the project in my mind has been thorough," he said, noting that the project has been under review for nine years. "There is no reason a offshore wind project should take a decade to be approved," he added.

The project's approval was especially salient in light of the current drilling catastrophe off the coast of Louisiana, where the Coast Guard today announced that it is planning to light the oil spill on fire in order to protect the sensitive coastline. The spill has sparked concerns over the administration's plans to expand offshore drilling, which Salazar and President Barack Obama announced last month.

The juxtaposition didn't seem lost on Salazar. "Cape Wind is the opening of a new chapter," he said.

UPDATE: Cape Wind president Jim Gordan issued a statement that he hopes "to begin construction of Cape Wind before the end of the year." "Going first is never easy and Cape Wind is proud of the role we played in raising awareness for what will become a major component of our energy future and in helping the United States develop a regulatory framework for this new exciting industry," Gordan said.

Petitions and Politics

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

Stephanie Mencimer writes today about a Supreme Court case challenging the right of Washington state to release the names of people who signed a petition to overturn its domestic partnership law:

The lawyer leading the attack on these states' disclosure laws is James Bopp, a leader of the Christian Right with an uncanny ability to spot weaknesses in campaign finance statutes and obliterate them via the First Amendment....And while his clients in these cases are usually religious or conservative groups, the biggest beneficiary of these efforts has been, almost exclusively, corporate America.

....Bopp has already succeeded in keeping the Ref. 71 names under wraps for a year, winning an injunction from a federal district court in Washington. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, but then the Supreme Court reinstated the injunction and agreed to hear the case. The high court's interest in Reed should trouble anyone unhappy about the court's overreach in Citizens United. If the court finds that petition-signers deserve anonymity, it's not much of a stretch for it to decide that campaign donors should also be shielded, lest they get nasty emails about their political views.

I'm a little nervous about this. Obviously Bopp and his cause don't evoke much sympathy from us liberals, but I'm not sure that I'm not on his side here. To me, signing an initiative petition seems more similar to voting than it does to giving money to a candidate. It's one thing to take the risk of making your political views public if you take the active step of contributing to a candidate or a cause, but it strikes as quite another thing to take that risk for the very routine step of signing an initiative petition. It's simply not clear to me what the public good is in allowing this.

The big concern, of course, is that "it's not much of a stretch" to decide that campaign contributions should be kept private too. But I don't see that. Substantively, there's a huge difference: knowing where money is coming from is fundamental to even the most limited kind of campaign finance regulation. If you strike that down, you've essentially wiped out the power of Congress in this area almost entirely. Conversely, keeping the names on initiative petitions private has virtually no knock-on effects at all.

Practically, I'm not sure I see the slippery slope either. If a majority of the Supreme Court decides that campaign contributions can be kept private, then that's how they'll rule. I don't think they need to sidle up to it slowly by ruling on initiative petitions first.

But I guess here's my challenge, and it's an honest one: can anyone explain to me the social good that comes from making names on initiative petitions public? On the downside, it will make people less likely to sign petitions,1 and it also opens them up to potential harrassment from opponents and employers2 — not to mention fundraising pitches from fellow travelers. On the upside — what? I can't think of any argument that wouldn't also apply to exposing my votes to public scrutiny. But school me in comments if you think I'm missing something.

1Which, admittedly, some might see as an upside. But that's just snark, not a serious public policy argument.

2I'm thinking here of, say, a secretary in a Mormon church who signs a petition in favor of gay marriage and finds his name on the internet a couple of months later. How long would it be before someone in the church office figured out an excuse to fire him?

Neocons Launch War of Words Against Obama

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

The neocons have a new beef with President Barack Obama: he's reportedly dropping the phrase "Islamist extremism" and replacing it with "violent extremism." On Thursday, the Committee on the Present Danger—which in its heyday was a collection of Cold War hawks who opposed détente with the Soviet Union—sent a letter to Obama, deputy national security adviser John Brennan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring that "this action contradicts the accepted military intelligence doctrine to properly identify, define, and know your enemy."

The letter added:

the CPD believes that militant Islamic regimes and movements represent a serious threat to the United States and other free nations. If we are to meet this challenge, we must understand the beliefs and motivations of those who have dedicated themselves to what they call a “jihad” against “infidels” based on their reading of the Koran.

The CPD missive was signed by former Secretary of State George Shultz and former CIA chief R. James Woolsey, the two chairmen of CPD, plus 64 other members of the group. These include the usual suspects of conservative hawkdom: Morrie Amitay, Frank Gaffney, Clifford May, Andrew McCarthy, Joshua Muravchik, Daniel Pipes, Danielle Pletka, Norman Podhoretz, Randy Scheunemann, and Victoria Toensing. Former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former Reagan National Security Adviser Roebrt McFarlane also joined in.

The CPD letter echoes an angry note that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), an honorary CPD chairman, sent Brennan earlier in the month. Lieberman complained that the term "Islamist extremism" does not

appear in two critical national security documents released by the Administration in 2010: the Department of Homeland Security's Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report and the Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review Report—both of which guide our government's numerous and costly policies and programs that have as their major purpose protecting the American people from terrorism inspired by violent Islamist extremist ideology and carries out by violent Islamist terrorists.

Lieberman complained that "the failure to identify our enemy for what it is—violent Islamist extremism—is offensive."And he argued that "any reluctance to describe our enemies as exactly what they are—violent Islamist extremists—disrespects the non-violent Muslim majority and compromises our ability to defeat the extremists."

FedEx vs. UPS on Unionization

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson has a great column today on the battle between UPS and FedEx, the parcel carriers, over whether FedEx should be governed by the same labor laws as its competitor. As it stands, FedEx, which started as an air transport company but has since expanded to ground service, falls under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), while UPS, which started as a ground service, falls under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In practice, that makes it very hard for FedEx workers to unionize. Meyerson explains:

Drivers at UPS, FedEx's main rival, and at other, smaller delivery companies can and have voted to form their own Teamster locals in myriad cities across the land, as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) permits. Under the RLA, however, the rules for forming unions are very different: The entire nationwide workforce must vote in a single election, and the union must obtain a majority not just of the workers voting but of voters and non-voters combined. (If a comparable rule held for presidential elections, requiring the winner to obtain a majority of the adult population of the United States, it's not clear that this nation would have had a president since—well, ever.)

It seems obvious that two companies that directly compete in the same business should be governed by the same labor rules. That's why the House passed a bill in March that would bring FedEx under the NLRA. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who represents Tennessee, the home state of FedEx CEO and GOP donor Fred Smith, has pledged to kill the measure. And that gets us to what is perhaps the most interesting part of this story: the battle on Capitol Hill between FedEx lobbyists on one side and the Teamsters and UPS lobbyists on the other. This story gets at the heart of how Washington really works. Most legislative battles aren't fought between disinterested parties looking for a common-sense solution—they're fought between powerful interest groups with money at stake. FedEx vs. UPS + the Teamsters is just another variation of Wall Street vs. Big Hollywood.